Recently, Dr. Malcolm Yarnell from SWBTS posted a Twitter thread on how Autonomy and Discipline can work together in SBC life, based on his experience and understanding. He has cleaned it up into paragraphs and I thought it would be valuable here for your perusal.
Later today (or this week, depending,) I will post my own response to Dr. Yarnell’s thoughts and that will provide the comment stream for discussion, accusation, and heretic-burning. Dr. Yarnell won’t be able to interact here, so I am closing the comments on his post and you can yell and scream on mine later. —Doug
Local Church Autonomy and Its Theological Context
Over the last few years, the cherished Baptist doctrine of Local Church Autonomy has come under suspicion as a result of the journalistic substantiation of the horrific abuse of women and children by ministers within our local churches and affiliated organizations. Many are concerned that the doctrine may have been used so as to allow evil ministers to escape, first, detection and, second, justice. The question thus arises: Does Local Church Autonomy keep the Southern Baptist Convention from dealing with its sexual abuse crisis or even from realizing the extent of that crisis?
Personally, I believe this important Baptist doctrine, when properly understood, is not the problem. Rather, the misappropriation of the doctrine is a problem. In short, if a Baptist church may be excluded or removed from an association or convention for reasons of doctrinal heresy or gross moral sin, and they definitely have been, then the doctrine of Local Church Autonomy functions within certain theological boundaries, primarily Christological in nature, that should keep the doctrine from being misused. Reflection upon a previous example of the doctrine’s misuse and the overcoming of that misuse by a group of embattled pastors may help us today.
In the mid-1990s I was involved in some eye-opening proceedings after being elected President of one North Carolina association’s Pastors’ Conference. One of our associated local churches had recently countenanced a teacher who explicitly and publicly denied the bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday. (He later wrote a letter explaining that the Jewish leaders had killed Jesus because he “showed his a**” in opposition to their authority.) The church, to our amazement, fired their pastor after he publicly opposed this false teacher. In reaction to that firing, deeply concerned for the souls of the people in that church and for their multitude of friends and relatives in our churches, the majority of the pastors in that North Carolina association voted to conduct an inquiry of the church. Moreover, as their newly elected president, the pastors asked me to lead in the discovery and verification of the relevant facts.
However, to my emotional shock and disappointment, a few of our pastors were adamantly opposed even to opening a process of discovery. These pastors included both one revered conservative, who today inhabits a powerful denominational position, and three liberal pastors. They appealed to local church autonomy as their primary argument against the inquiry. The crippling apostasy of the church teacher was not sufficient, in their minds, for an associational query. Several other pastors made it a point to lambast me at the worst possible time, right before I was scheduled to preach the Word on Sunday morning. Soon afterwards, the pastor of the largest church in the association and the Director of Missions likewise expressed their dissent with the majority of the association’s pastors.
Eventually, the Pastors’ Conference concluded that the inflammatory facts of the case warranted making a joint pastoral motion to remove the church from the Association at its next annual meeting. Alas, tensions brought us to a breaking point, due to the public opposition of the Director of Missions to the proposed motion. As a result of his unwise actions, several of our churches voted to withhold our financial gifts to the Association until the matter was settled. Eventually, the Director of Missions and a prominent pastor felt personally deputized to meet with the Pastors’ Conference leaders. During that meeting, we explained that our required fidelity to the core of the Christian faith (1 Corinthians 15) trumped their misuse of the doctrine of Local Church Autonomy.
The dissenters tried to appeal to the Baptist doctrine of Local Church Autonomy (LCA) as reason enough for us to cease acting. They lamented that the Association would be split if we moved to discipline the church during the approaching annual meeting. In response, we noted that orthodox Christians were fleeing the affected church. That argument, surprisingly to us, did not persuade them. But what did move them finally to action over the next month was the cold hard fact that less cash was being made available to pay the expenses of the association, particularly the salary of the Director of Missions, which was by far the largest budget item. The minority coalition of dissenting liberals and conservatives could not deny that the pre-meeting withdrawal of associational gifts by the orthodox churches was also an undeniable expression of our autonomy. As a result of the impending crisis and of our implacable opposition to apostasy, the subject church was soon led to discipline the offending teacher immediately prior to the annual meeting. Our joint motion to remove the church was thereby effectively undermined.
This history reminds us that LCA works in many ways. None of the Baptist pastors involved in this story ever denied the fact that the offending church had a right to believe and teach what it willed. And the dissenting minority of church leaders, composed of both liberals and conservatives, also could not deny that the majority orthodox churches had a right to associate with whom we willed and to disassociate from whom we wished.
I would argue from my deep biblical studies and hard-won convictions defined during this crisis that Local Church Autonomy is bounded by at least seven factors:
- Because churches receive their authority directly from covenant with Christ, LCA is defined by Christ and not by the local church itself. The Word of God both grounds and limits LCA. An orthodox Baptist church simply cannot contradict Christ’s Word and appeal to autonomy simultaneously. (This is why I prefer the language of Christonomy, which literally means “rule by Christ,” over the language of autonomy, literally “rule by self.”)
- Each Baptist church has direct access to the presence of Christ as King through the covenant that she has entered with Jesus Christ (Matthew 18:15-20). Each church also has the responsibility of interpreting his will through the proclamation and reception of his Word. Each Baptist church thus remains responsible for what it says and for what it does.
- Each Baptist church has the God-given responsibility to teach only truth and to discipline error within its membership. That disciplinary power comes directly from the gathering’s covenant in the name of Christ, and that authority cannot be granted to any other organization. Moreover, each church teaches not only by what it does within its gathering—It also teaches by countenancing or by denouncing moral errors and doctrinal heresies through its associations with other churches and institutions.
- While “theological triage” has its limits—due to the necessary problem of establishing proper authority—in defining what is and what is not countenanced, most Christians, including many liberals, would affirm that the denial of Christ’s bodily Resurrection places a purported Christian individual or community definitively outside the Christian faith.
- Other theological errors and moral practices will doubtlessly elicit various opinions across the churches and their associations. Some issues will cause fellowship to break, while other issues will not. For instance, most Christians and their churches will argue that sexual perversions—from rape to bestiality—require discipline. But most will alternatively argue that discipline should not be exercised with regard to diverse millennial views.
- Part of the beauty of LCA is that it allows the churches to define theological triage through the dynamic life of doctrinal discipline. Scholars themselves help in the process of discerning the definition of orthodoxy and heresy. But, let us be absolutely clear, scholars do not now and never ought to have definitional authority. Defining the center and boundaries of orthodoxy and fellowship belongs only to the Word as received and discerned by the churches.
- Christians individually and churches communally may speak to issues in other churches and provide counsel without violating LCA in the slightest, as long as they recognize their opinions regarding Christ’s will remain their opinions. This was seen when Paul and his opponents demonstrated their contradictory advices to various churches. Moreover, the Jerusalem church showed similar discernment when advising the Antioch church (Acts 15.)
There is yet more to say with regard to the extent of Local Church Autonomy, but please notice that there is a necessary theological framework for the wielding of LCA. Local Church Autonomy exists only under Christ’s Lordship and works well only within his received Lordship. Churches are responsible directly to Christ, but they are also responsible to advise one another and to associate or disassociate wisely. The church that refuses to do so is simply outside the will of our only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to whom alone we owe loyalty.
Malcolm B. Yarnell III
Research Professor of Systematic Theology, Southwestern Seminary
Teaching Pastor, Lakeside Baptist Church of Granbury, Texas
January 5, 2020